Introduction: Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and me go way back; it’s a long story of intellectual debt and sentimental affinity, and it has never dissolved or wavered in its resolve. I started reading Deleuze & Félix Guattari (1930-1992) at the tender age of 18; by the age of 20 I was already sketching out an ambitious essay (that I never wrote) called “Machines, Desires, Cinemas” – and in one of my earliest published reviews, on Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie), I took the plunge of “applying” their ideas to film, in my own sweet way. On many levels explicit and implicit, my film criticism has always been – according to my own understanding and appropriation of what I have been offered – “Deleuzean”. In June 1989, I was invited to give a talk in a series at 100 Gertrude St gallery (Fitzroy, Australia) devoted to “Foreign Knowledge”, and I chose Deleuze (plus Guattari, of course). Oddly, in my late 20s and facing the context of a particular and slightly unnerving/intimidating art world, I gave in to a moment of “legitimation anxiety” and decided, when publication time came around, not to write up what I had spoken (which had, moreover, been quite well received by the audience), but instead composed a somewhat more “specialised” piece on Deleuze and cinema theory. I subsequently regretted that failure of nerve on my part – my original “fan letter”, as I now realise, had a special poignancy and meaning for me as I entered my 30s. So, in 2021, I hereby present three occasions of reflection on Deleuze (a fourth from 2004, “My Back Pages”, can be found in my book Mysteries of Cinema): the original 1989 talk, which I give as is, without any footnoting or checking of references; the subsequent 1990 essay “The Abstract Machine”, which I have updated for due scholarly reference; and finally a spontaneous, loose-limbed 1997 contribution (also left unchecked and unreferenced) to an early-Internet “listserv” group devoted to discussing Deleuze – a contribution that got me effectively booted out of the club, but also won me a good friend in another “dissident Deleuzean”, Guillaume Ollendorff (see our subsequent collaboration here) – and you can’t ask more from an act of writing than that. Nor from an act of reading: for, in gathering this assemblage, I have realised with pleasure that “Deleuze” for me truly is a site where I have, above all else, made and consolidated friendships, a process going well beyond the timespan documented here. Not bad! (August 2021)
1. Deleuze & Me (1989 talk)
Naturally, building up to and preparing for this event today, I had the desire to re-read everything by Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari. But then I remembered the first thing I had ever read signed by them, back in 1978, in an Australian publication with the delightful title of Language, Sexuality & Subversion. On the transcribed page, there was Guattari at a “Freudo-Marxism” conference of 1973, who had dared to proclaim: “We must be ever ready at a certain moment to throw away the sacred texts of Marx and Freud” – at least, that’s how I remember it; I’m not going back to check.
Not to be slavish, not to re-read more closely: this meant a lot to me at that precise time since, in my second-year student guise at Melbourne State College, I was taking a “Three Great Men” course in philosophy – truly, it was called something on that order, “Three Great Men”, and the chosen chaps were Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. Our professor (Lindsay Jones, who I believe went on to become an expert in world religions) was a dour chap who could never look any of us 18-year-old kids in the eyes, always brimming with suppressed anger and disdain (especially on the night he realised that I was sitting in the same repertory cinema as him at a double-bill of Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès and Madame de … ).
The teacher demanded scrupulous attention to the sacred texts, but in this particular university context that meant: Marx without social movements, Freud without the complicated history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, Nietzsche without the “New Nietzsche” proselytised in a 1977 anthology (I already had a copy) that included Pierre Klossowski, Sarah Kofman, Maurice Blanchot, Alphonso Lingis and, once more, Deleuze ... So, I quoted this wonderful phrase of Guattari’s about throwing away the sacred texts at my Professor – and I failed his course! Not before, however, I received one grudging word of praise from him after delivering a long tutorial paper on the late/last Freud as per Civilisation and its Discontents and The Future of an Illusion, books I had began reading exactly four hours before that tute began, starting the first second Melbourne University’s library doors opened in the morning. Whew! The things we get away with in life …
This brings us to an immediate lesson. In Deleuze & Guattari, there’s a strong line against the seemingly proper, respectful, strict, dutiful, obedient, hierarchical, previously structured approaches to things, which are taken to be repressive, which block open-ended uses and experiments. They are in favour, rather, of approaches that take off from something and transform it. They make a distinction somewhere between relations (to a book, an idea, a thinker, anything) based on submission and those based on love.
My relation to Deleuze – I’ve been asked to pick just one proper name for this event, but often that will also interchangeably signify Deleuze & Guattari – was a first and most intense love. It was also the love that, happily, demanded the least of me – in the sense that I didn’t feel like I had to “go into training” to grasp his texts, unlike so much else I was reading (or being directed to read) at the time – more on that later. With Deleuze, I understood his buzzwords straight away – not buzzwords in the sarcastic sense of mantras, neon signs to which we bow, but rather a crowd of imprecise terms that hum and resonate together: machine, desiring machine, assemblage, rhizome, transversality, body without organs and, above all, desire. A “philosophy of desire”. Sounded good to me at the age of 18!
I’ve never had a fetishistic relation to Deleuze & Guattari. I took them at their word: I never felt like I was obliged to read their whole bibliography, nor even the whole of any one book by them. I read like a magpie, non-chronologically and in fragments. I’m proud to be a “non-philosophical” reader of Deleuze; he encourages a piecemeal approach, personal, non-specialist: you bring what you can to a text, whatever it is that you are. These are the famous images of theory as a tool box, and reading as the trying-on a pair of glasses: if you don’t see anything through them, if you don’t get anything from it, just try some other specs. Move on and look elsewhere.
So this, today, will not be a particularly scholarly account of Deleuze and/or Guattari, but rather an affective account – an emotional memory of the importance of this work for me. Take it or leave it, I’ve warned you.
Let me briefly locate Deleuze a little for you.
His philosophical œuvre starts in late 1940s and early ‘50s, emerging at roughly the same time as his close comrade Michel Foucault [1926-1984]. Deleuze wrote a series of books on thinkers including Hume, Spinoza, Bergson – I won’t be saying much about this period. But Deleuze certainly describes these subjects in a vivid way: as rationalist thinkers that he “fucked from behind” to produce a monstrous child, “making them say” terrible things, but still in their own words. An intriguing amalgam of respect and subversion; Deleuze always invites us to fully, imaginatively inhabit the conceptual world of any thinker worth anything – even if we start out from a position of temperamental distaste or political objection.
Then Nietzsche fucks him (as it were), and a new period begins in the mid 1960s. That leads to the long collaboration with Guattari, a practising analyst who had somewhat broken away from Lacan, and involved himself with radical therapeutic methods at the La Borde clinic. Anti Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus; Kafka also by the both of them, and the collection (in a Penguin paperback!)) Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics by Guattari: this is the period (in English translation) that became important to me.
These writings and talks by Deleuze & Guattari had their impact in Europe (the Italian Autonomy movements, involving Radio Alice and a young Franco “Bifo” Berardi). They also had an effect in America, and in Australia: this starts to generate a lot of writing, artwork, comics, music and so on in the latter part of the ‘70s, and as “news” it peters out somewhere around 1983. Then Jean Baudrillard [1929-2007] hits the scene in a big way, and postmodernism too. Deleuze himself moves into a differently reflective period during the ‘80s; while Guattari remains politically active as ever, but we don’t hear much reported about it outside the circle of his travel adventures (Brazil, Japan, etc.).
It’s hard to avoid speaking in mediatic clichés about all this, but here it is: the glorious period of Deleuze & Guattari that I’ve circumscribed is very much a “post 1968” tumult of theory and thought and experiment, a ‘70s era of countercultural and anarchic Liberation movements, and the explosion of artistic forms. As Meaghan Morris (co-editor of Language, Sexuality & Subversion) put it: “little lines of flight” from a previous era of Communist Party dominance, powerfully optimistic, “autonomous” and idealistic .
There’s a tendency nowadays to put Deleuze & Guattari in a box and label it “the age of desire” or the “ten years of desire” (Umberto Eco) – usually ironically since, apparently, “desire has fallen into oblivion”, we grew up and moved out of that infantile playpen, the era of AIDS descended … It is thus Baudrillard who came to sound the withering postmodern note on this sad but realistic/pragmatic decline in our collective fortunes; while a generation younger than mine stepped in to proclaim the arrival of ultra-ironic, anti-hippie cool. Another set of media clichés: flame of youth, growing old, the inevitable procession of the generations, each one overturning the last … Oedipus has returned, god(ard) help us!
Looking back on Deleuze & Guattari today is therefore, in my terms, a process of testing the resilience of one’s own optimism – of measuring its boundlessness, and/or its boundedness.
I would like to highlight a few particular themes from their work.
Here is a pair of references from that 1978 Australian book which spun my head around at age 18, Language, Sexuality & Subversion. The first is from the collective text “The Interpretation of Utterances”, which looks at case studies in child-analysis by Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein and Jacques Hochmann. In every case, they show how the child’s complex statements, gestures, drawings, and so on, are reduced and strangled through an act of interpretation which is rigidly symbolic, doggedly translating everything in reference to a master key or code. In particular, the code of (as Deleuze once wonderfully whined) “daddy, mommy, Oedipus, castration, regression” – here is a strong line drawn against the conventional “nuclear family” model, a resistance with which I’ve long felt a strong sympathy.
In one instance of this interpretive process, the kids’ drawings of bombs or street maps is instantly “read” as representing the phallus, or as diagrams of Oedipal relations ... but meanwhile, there’s a real war going on in the world outside! The child here is deprived of a social, historical consciousness, placed back in the bind of the family. In the lingo that may be overfamiliar to you by now, the child deterritorialises, while the analyst reterritorialises. Bear with me, please!
Also in Language, Sexuality & Subversion, I encountered Guattari’s allegorical anecdote of two imaginary children, Baptiste and his unnamed older brother. It has stayed with me a long time, all my life.
A child threatens his small brother and says: “Baptiste, I’m going to cut off your head!” In fact, nothing in this utterance permits one to attribute this “I” to the child’s totality and “Baptiste” to the brother’s reality. If this utterance is crystallised, if it is rendered attributive, the child becomes responsible for it, he becomes potentially the murderer of his brother. But was it really his brother, as a person such as “person” is taken hold of within the familial co-ordinates, who was referred to? […] Suppose words are treated as things, with the words entering into the service of intensities of every nature, and the small child says: “I’m going to tear off my brother’s head” … but immediately he goes on to something else quite different, immediately he would like to leave with him for the moon, one perceives that he hates his brother but that at the same time he loves him, in short, that he does not know what he wants, that he is polymorphous ambivalent; but should he be considered, for all that, perverse? Tearing the head off his doll, wishing to stroke his mother’s belly ... are these things which really have anything to do with complete objects? (pp. 131-132)
What themes can be drawn from these lively passages? First, a lesson in not interpreting or translating things, but going with them, as they are, in their literalness, on their surface. Going with the flow: as Deleuze asserts, “writing as a flow, not a code”. A matter of intensities and effects, emotions and forms. Look into the extraordinary cross-media work of Fernand Deligny, whose path crossed Guattari’s, and you’ll understand this straight away. Or the films of Werner Schroeter, or Carmelo Bene – Deleuze knew both of them. There’s a responsiveness here to art as itself (in the best cases) a powerful form of thought.
Deleuze & Guattari hate everything to do with someone presuming to represent (as in: speak for) somebody else, something standing in for something else, somebody identifying with somebody else ... Everything has to exist in itself, and be allowed to exist in that way, as singularity. An impossible science of singularities, a science for every (worthy) object, as Roland Barthes suggested. Impossibility is itself a key motif: like in the work of Michel Serres, there is high respect for both the irrational, and rationality pushed to the point of madness. Systematically!
Against the Ego: what we can get from reading and experiencing Deleuze & Guattari is the vision of not a locked-in Self, interior and brooding, but the joy and adventure of “getting outside yourself”, being open to, and taken up by, everything outside yourself. It’s in this way that they reverse the age-old myth of Kafka as existential hermit. Their Kafka brings laughter in place of “the anguish of petty narcissism, the dread of guilt” (that’s in “Nomad Thought”, one of Deleuze’s contributions to The New Nietzsche).
At the time of Anti-Oedipus, they spoke a lot about madness and the “schizo stroll”, Antonin Artaud’s Body Without Organs, and related liberatory “pathologies”. Guattari had a direct and messy involvement with these matters in his therapeutic practice – in a lineage with the anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing, but also highly critical of that legacy. Their position is finally more moderate, less wildly romantic than it might at first seem. It’s not just a celebration of “freaking out” and letting that freak flag fly! In Deleuze especially, there’s a Taoist or Zen element, an ego-less centring that is full of what he called “motionless trips”.
If you excuse the lingo again, it’s all a perpetual state of becoming. A philosophy or theory of otherness – not just other people, but also the natural elements, inanimate objects, ideas. Everything technological and artistic as well, such as the gaseous and liquid perceptions of cinema as a medium. Notions of collectivity: everyone is a groupuscle, we all contain other people, other interests beyond “self interests”. Everyone is an intensive multiplicity; that’s the “you” which your name names. (It’s the same with artists and filmmakers for Deleuze: a name like Bacon or Varda is not the marker of a specific, interior, biographical history, but rather an idea, a form, a practice, a philosophical stance.)
Let me give this lingo a personal twist here. I relate to this anti-ego talk because I’ve always felt an innate revulsion – even from a very young age – to the hideous normativeness of our society’s relentless ego-psychology, all the endless know-thyself movements. It didn’t just begin with the so-called New Age: back in the classrooms of Catholic secondary school in the early 1970s, I was force-fed Virginia Axline’s vomitous Dibs in Search of Self (1964), with its cheery vision of a quasi-autistic boy coming around to communicate with and relate to his teachers and parents, “integrating” himself into the family and social unit. Bah!
Now, whenever I think fondly of the work of Deleuze & Guattari, I also conjure its Dark Shadow: bloody Dibs, and his reassuring, Spielbergian search for his lost Self. It torments me. Because the Dibs story is not far from the sickening, everyday wisdom of “fitting in”: it’s your problem, so come to terms with it, sort yourself out. Axline’s book comes under the umbrella of a psychology school named “person-centred therapy”; it’s probably still thriving today. Can you possibly imagine anything worse?
What’s the opposite or alternative to a person-centred therapy? Guattari evoked the notion of collective melancholia, of which one constantly hears the echo …
Desire: big word, big concept, big feeling. I think of it as the name for an energy, a movement toward … something, anything. Not solely or primarily a sexual energy, although the notion received a powerful inflection in that direction in the 1972 book Homosexual Desire by Guy Hocquenghem [1944-1988], a text that served as something of a primer for my understanding when it appeared in English in 1978. Eros, taken in its broadest extension, is at the heart of Deleuze & Guattari’s idea of desire, but also every kind of affection, attraction, friendship, encounter, love.
Rhizome. The necessity to connect, to not linger too long on any one thing. To move: nomadism. Any one work, object, statement, idea, is only a flow that connects to other flows, other events. Hence another slogan: make lines, not points. The whole reversal of surface and depth (as traditionally deployed in arts criticism) is summed up in Deleuze’s discussion of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: a fantasia of transformations and mutations, always sliding along a mobile surface.
Machine. The idea that things are – or can easily become part of – machines or assemblages, full of heterogenous bits and pieces that can be recombined, reconnected. There are many kinds of movements in this system: not only positive encounters (Surrealist-style), but also crack-ups, break downs, missed connections.
The ideal (which is not philosophical or moral idealism). All that Deleuze & Guattari ever describe are potentialities, possibilities. For them, every closed form could become, at any moment, open. Open systems possess a hyper-logic. We may live them (if we’re lucky); we have a harder time capturing and describing them.
So, to writing. Deleuze’s & Guattari’s terms seem to me always approximate and overlapping; it’s as if they invented a new conceptual set every morning over breakfast, just for the heck of it. So you can’t mechanically apply or illustrate these terms. Take, for example, the idea of machinic art: that doesn’t just apply to montage works, or to anything elaborately technological. Guattari detects the workings of a machine in a Balthus painting just as much as in a Hans Bellmer doll; in a Hollywood film like Badlands (1973) as much as an avant-garde one by Michael Snow. I’m primarily a film critic, but my love for Deleuze does not lead me in search of a certifiably Deleuzean film, whatever that would be: one clearly inspired by him, or that reflects his style and concerns (even if there are a few such films, eg., Godard’s Sauve qui peut). Rather, one seeks out spiritual affinities: John Cassavetes, for instance. I would say, in this case, that Deleuze has attuned me to seeking out a certain rich ambiguity of gesture, a complexity of expressive movements on all levels (bodies, camera, colours, light, situation, emotion … ).
Some qualities or properties of how Deleuze & Guattari write, how they describe, and what they’re trying to describe. I am always struck by how spatial and architectural their terms and metaphors are: lines, planes, transversalities, strata. For me, this signals a potent and infectious love of the diagram in its freest, most elevated and inventive state. Writing is not about explaining or illustrating; rather, it’s for mapping and surveying (the aesthete-philosopher Jean Louis Schefer, a decisive influence on Deleuze in the ‘80s, asserts something very similar). This is why his cinema books so blithely bypass most types of representational content for the sake of grasping a particular (and peculiar) history of forms in this medium.
The writing of Deleuze & Guattari is a flux, not so much poetic as musical: a constant configuring and reconfiguring of motifs, a resonant space of concepts. If you’re open to it, their work primes you for a certain kind of attitude that proves just as good for writing journalism as for writing theory – and, especially, for trying to write everything in-between, station to station. The ideal of Pop Philosophy is one in which people would say things in their own way, with the intensities and energies of which they are capable – or which they might discover.
Getting out of the box of your given specialisation: that’s what it prompted in me, proud dabbler, “militant dilettante” as I coined the phrase, in music, graphics, performance, Super-8 filmmaking, as part of the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre/Art & Text scene of the early 1980s. I saw the signs of this everywhere around me: Terence Blake’s musical involvement in his Sydney scene during that same moment, for instance.
The crack-up (Fitzgeraldian term appropriated by Deleuze) came even a bit earlier and more intimately for me, before that explosion of collective art-and-theory making, within the domain of writing itself. I got to make my own line of flight, my own transversal connection between previously separated-out, compartmentalised spheres of my life when a friend asked me, plaintively, somewhere in 1980: “Why don’t you write your essays the way you write your letters?” So then I wrote, as deliriously as I could manage, about Bugs Bunny: a true bloc d’enfance … It sure liberated my writing.
Let’s now try to plunge all this back into some historical context. For many, the Deleuzo-Guattarian influence “went cold” after a period of several years – whatever precise place or time they were inhabiting. On the one hand, we have to understand their work as offering liberation that carried a very particular inflection in a very particular context – it was a battering ram against certain tendencies (on the “left”, let’s say) during the 1960s and ‘70s. Certain forms of thinking (and acting) that had become terribly rigid, prescriptive (and proscriptive), moralistic.
In my own backyard, for example: 1970s film theory, of the sort associated with the UK publication Screen and its vast, global progeny in universities everywhere. Painfully rigorous, would-be scientific, mechanistic forms of code-deducing and code-breaking film analysis. There was a real terror attached to semiotics in those days; Deleuze & Guattari made light of it with their jokes about the signifier/signified problem. Where semiotics shrunk films down to minute textual interpretation (and often ungenerously, piously so, driven by the famous “hermeneutics of suspicion”), they displaced this activity to a different plane of intensity, a networking between interconnected bits of texts, ideas and experiences. An expanded, not constricted way of proceeding. A moment of joyous baby-with-bathwater anarchy: anti-Oedipus, anti-Freud, anti-Lacan too.
Where film theory, pumped along by strains of Althusserianism and other horrors, was obsessed with a deterministic, sad, inevitable “positioning of the interpellated subject” by the film and by dominant ideology, the Deleuze & Guattari jive injected a dose of complex, messy, everyday life that was definitely missing from the theoretical picture. Before them, things were becoming dogmatic, puritanical, and elitist in the worst way. So Deleuze & Guattari arrived, for some of us, as the “real life is elsewhere” blast all over again, as it had been, once or twice upon a time, for Surrealists, for Situationists, for whomever truly inspired you … I vividly recall jumping with joy upon encountering the (in truth, somewhat mysterious) formulation at the start of “Rhizome”, later integrated into A Thousand Plateaus: “There is no ideology and never has been”.
(Aside: the great thing, when Deleuze’s cinema books appeared, is that they gave hardly any sign that all this hard line ’70s film theory had even happened; he simply didn’t seem to have noticed or read much of it – it was a different, older, belles lettres tradition of Cahiers du cinéma, for instance, that he responded to, not its militantly dogmatic or Maoist period of roughly 1969-1974. His books landed when the general ‘70s project of film theory was very near exhausted – and here he was talking instead about forms, movements, energies, intensities, affections ... and in a pop philosophy vein, too, combining with total unselfconsciousness the pulpiest B movie by Mario Bava with the grandest art cinema success by Ingmar Bergman. That’s the aspect of those books I like best.)
Deleuze, with and without Guattari, came and went, went and came again, in and out of our unfolding lives. I’ve mentioned only a few of the historic swirls and eddies here. So, what’s the balance sheet? These are some of the (on)going critiques:
First the cynical or nihilistic counter that desire is just too ideal, too ephemeral, a will-o’-the-wisp. Baudrillard’s line: if desire is everywhere, then why not say its nowhere; if it’s everything, why not say it’s just nothing (he said the same of the notion of power in Foucault)? Then there’s Eco’s attempt to shore up the primacy of Reason over the immaterial flightiness of need, desire, instinct, etc. – everything that can lead all too often, in his schema, to barbarity (eg., terrorism). The New Philosophers developed, in their ham-fisted way, a similar critique of the “legacy of ‘68”. At the very least, we should admit that a “philosophy of desire” can indeed play into the hands of power, or simply acquiesce to it (as in a certain postmodern vision of leisure-time consumer society).
Then comes the feminist critique. Commentators from Alice Jardine to Lorraine Mortimer have led the charge that the weight which Deleuze & Guattari place on the heroic notion of “becoming-woman” has a tendency to displace actual, flesh-and-blood, embodied and historic women – or to cast them as mere support-acts to nomadic guys. On the other side of that fence, Liz Grosz has remained a passionate reader and defender of Deleuze.
Various strains of Marxism have counterattacked to the Deleuzo-Guattarian critique heaped upon them. Sure, they argue, everything is potentially open, everything moves and buzzes with fabulous virtualities – but what governs the conditions whereby some things stay closed, and our social organisation doesn’t really change much at all? In this scenario, their writing – and indeed, much counterculture – gets cast as a mere New Age sideshow, maybe personally enriching as “lifestyle”, but unable to effect real political change.
There has also been a shift in the critique of the ego function. Without altogether wanting to bringing back damn Dibs and his Search of Integrated Self, it’s possible to think that neo-capitalism these days perhaps wants, even requires, the splintered, “schizo” self, actively encourages it– especially in a working world where so many of us are increasingly literally dissociated, spread across various part time, freelance occupations (teaching, writing, etc.) that end up eating the entire 24-hour cycle of every day. There’s an attraction to calls like Julia Kristeva’s to “repair the shattered imaginary”, or film scholar Peter Benson’s suggestion that “a yearning for healing of the Oedipal split seems to me, in the age of Rambo, to have a positive quality which it would be wrong to dismiss airily” ...
Let’s put the polemics aside for now. Humanism has a bad name these days in some quarters, but surely we could agree there’s a good, political, life-affirming humanism, and that Deleuze & Guattari are practitioners of it. I remain, all these years later, struck by Guattari’s rumination from ’73 on the militant who gets scared at the barricade as s/he faces a shield- and weapon-wielding cop: that’s a real dose of human complexity there. And a genuine affection and respect for what many different kinds of people do, what they can do; an affirmation of the life-drive: “When I’ve stopped loving things and people (not very many) I’ll be mortified, dead”. When Deleuze was accused of being romantically attached to outsiders, anarchists and experimentalists that he only pretended to emulate in his real life, he replied:
If I don’t move, if I don’t travel, I have taken motionless trips just like everyone else, and I can measure them only by my emotions, express them in the most oblique and diverted way in what I write. And who cares about my relations with homosexuals, alcoholics and drug addicts, if I manage to achieve the same results as theirs by other means? […] The problem is not one of being this or that in man, but rather one of becoming human, of a universal becoming animal: not to take oneself for a beast, but to undo the human organisation of the body, to cut across such and such a zone of intensity in the body, every-one of us discovering the zones which are really his or hers, and the groups, the populations, the species which inhabit them. Why shouldn’t I speak of medicine without being a doctor if I speak of it as a dog? Why shouldn’t I speak of drugs, if I speak of it as a little bird? And why shouldn’t I invest a real speech in something, even if this speech is completely unreal and artificial, without anyone asking me my credentials for delivering it? [...] What can you do with your very own “reality”? Yours is dull realism. So then, why do you read me?
Why do I read Deleuze, why do I still read him, and remember the powerful, formative first affect of his work on me? It has to do with the kind of energy and optimism that can only come through experimentation, through an experimental mapping and imagining. Deleuze once remarked that he tries to map not only what is, but also what yet isn’t, what is perhaps to come. What he once once said of Kafka, and I would say of him and Guattari: “All the great books bring about a transmutation, they give tomorrow’s health. One cannot help but laugh when the codes are confounded.”
In 1986, a group of film scholars associated with the French journal Hors Cadre [1983-1993] asked Gilles Deleuze what I regard as an ingenious question. It concerned the imaginary – and the conspicuous absence of a concept of it in the philosopher’s work. Here, in full, is their question (actually three consecutive questions), springing specifically from a reading of his two-volume opus Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985)1.
In your analysis of the cinema you never use the term the imaginary, widely used in other work to characterise cinematic language. What are your reasons for avoiding this term? Might not your reflections on the role of light in filmic figuration, your fascinating suggestion of a look that is already there in the image, allow you to trace out your own conception of the imaginary? More generally, does the notion of the imaginary, which is particularly variable in various disciplines, have any place in philosophy? How would you characterise this place? Might not your own analysis of cinema induce you to set out the heuristic role of the imaginary in your own work – including that on cinema – and in the way you write?2
Before we consider Deleuze’s no less ingenious response to this question, let us pause on the concept of the imaginary, and all that such a concept might bring to a reading of this philosopher. The meaning of the imaginary is, well, “particularly variable in various disciplines” – but, whether in psychoanalysis or film studies, it more or less centres on the realm of the individual psyche, and all of the sometimes highly individualised fantasies, perceptions, dreams and nightmares that dwell there.
In the Lacanian schema, and a few other prevalent theoretical systems, the Imaginary is that messy, intractable, murky zone, the subjective centre of the world – variously the place of the pleasure principle, the Id, fantasy, desire, yearning – flanked by two oppressive reality-principled solidities: the Real itself, brutal, concrete, even uninhabitable; and the Symbolic, that book of all social rules, codes, positions. The Imaginary, it is said, keeps you and me alive in the face of these grim realities – no doubt a little crazy, but functioning nonetheless. Think, for instance, of how much contemporary cultural theory depends, at its core, on a concept of a personal-cum-collective imaginary, a Utopian Imaginary that has to introject and project (in short, to dream) like mad in a difficult present, in order to even dimly imagine a better tomorrow, or try to move toward it.
A well-known adversary of institutional psychoanalysis, with its holy altars of Self and Ego, Deleuze might understandably fight shy of taking on board the imaginary in any form related to that. After all, a refusal of even a vestige of “Lacanism” was an advertised, theorised part of his political strategy as a writer in the ‘70s – preferring as he did a more open-ended, socially-oriented schizoanalysis. But this is not how he chooses to answer the scribes of Hors Cadre. “I do not believe the imaginary has any power, in dreams, fantasies … and so on,” he announces. “The imaginary is a rather imprecise notion. It makes sense in strict conditions.” In the course of his remarks, he pulls a switcheroo – forget the imaginary, let’s talk crystals instead. What? “To imagine is to construct image-crystals, to make the images behave like a crystal. It’s not the imaginary but the crystal that has a heuristic role, with its triple-circuit: actual-virtual, clear-opaque, seed-environment”. Eventually, he concludes: “What I set out to do in these books on cinema was not to reflect on the imaginary but something more practical: to disseminate time crystals”.
Note that for Deleuze here the concept of time crystals is an eminently practical one – not at all mystical, metaphysical or esoteric. A time crystal is a material object. Deleuze uses a quasi-scientific language to describe the formation of artistic images within the logic of the crystal: circuits, exchanges, becomings, oscillations, transformations. Like his compatriot Félix Guattari, he looks ahead eagerly to our new moment of chaos theory, fractal geometry, computers, digital images and the like, for the best theory of the artistic object (“the arts, science, and philosophy are already bringing about unforeseen encounters”). In short, what some would see as only imaginary, Deleuze insists (quietly, matter-of-factly) on seeing as real, evident, material.
Perhaps there’s a kind of dare here from Deleuze to his interrogators, an element of cheek, perversity, provocation. After all, it’s clear enough that we shouldn’t take the science bit too literally: “Nowhere do we claim for our concepts the title of a science. We are no more familiar with scientificity than we are with ideology; all we know are assemblages” (A Thousand Plateaus); “Not claiming any scientific ground to my work and attaching little value to such classifications ... ” (Guattari).3 So where exactly (if not in scientific truth) is an idea’s value staked? Perhaps Deleuze is trying to boggle the rational mind with a singular paradox: the moment after we have been persuaded that a time crystal should certainly be a material object – that’s its interest, its force as a concept – we might have to admit that we can’t possibly really imagine what it is, and how we would ever identify one. What the hell is a time crystal?
In the work of Deleuze and/or Guattari, the appearance of such mind-boggling concepts at key moments is not exactly new. I have a palpable memory of first coming across a famous passage in the essay “Rhizome”, which later formed the basis for the introduction to the 1980 A Thousand Plateaus. I had reached a point, in my voracious consumption of their work, where their notion of the machine was second nature to me: a machine is a non-hierarchical assemblage of diverse parts, it creates unprogrammed-for effects, it’s full of intensities and transformations ... and so on. Then came the clincher, when the idea of the machine flew right off the page and into my face. Deleuze and Guattari, gathering up all their forces, signal the existence of “a war machine, love machine, revolutionary machine, etc. – and an abstract machine that sweeps them along”.4
An abstract machine? A fond reader of Deleuze learns to take such things with good cheer – accepting that there are some things he or she will never understand, no matter how many other neighbouring French philosophers can be pulled into the fray for spurious help. It’s as if Deleuze wants to coax you to that limit of your rationality, and experience that limit, not one but many times. Not in order to then go over the edge into the realm of the irrational – Deleuze has never truly been an irrationalist, even if perhaps he has sometimes wished to be (haven’t we all!). Rather, his writing stages a wonderful game with the rules, protocols and speculative possibilities of rational, philosophical discourse. Deleuze may explicitly eschew the categories of the imaginary, as well as the Utopian (a word which rarely features in his work, and almost never beyond Anti-Oedipus) – and we must take seriously his argued reasons for doing so – but the very fact that he makes such a play of calling us, pulling us beyond the text signals something that is indeed a little imaginary and Utopian: the need for the reader to bring something more to this willfully incomplete or unthinkable system of ideas in order for it to work at all. Something of his or her self, experience, cause, passion, whatever. It’s a classic Deleuzean (probably Nietzschean) idea, in fact: the book, the argument, the work is nothing in itself, connect it to something else, make it work, if it doesn’t work then try another pair of glasses ...
One of the truest remarks about Deleuze (and Michel Foucault) was made in Australia by Paul Foss in 1982: “It is our actual experience which has accorded them a certain transparency, not the bite of their arguments”.5 It’s not a bad thing, for a change, to read a philosopher who doesn’t want to bite you, and whose work’s only condition of comprehensibility – a fragile, nearly impossible comprehensibility – is to reverberate for a moment or two within the space of one’s own experience. That is why there can be no “exegesis” of Deleuze, and (please) no exegetes – only lovers.6
To those who have experienced the history of the arts/cultural studies/philosophy scene in Australia during the 1980s, there might well seem to be two Deleuzes, tied to two very different cultural moments. First, and more flamboyantly, the Anti-Oedipal or Desire Deleuze, followed a little while later by the unexpectedly quiet Deleuze of the cinema books, seemingly on a new course. (The historical chronology of Deleuze’s effect on Australia, via translations, courses and so on, is substantially displaced from the original European timeline.) Both Deleuzes inspired a specific Australian following scattered around a few capital cities.
Desire Deleuze entered Australia particularly through the Working Papers Collective, specifically the Meaghan Morris & Paul Foss collection Language, Sexuality and Subversion in 1978, and exploded into a hundred intense fragments of marginal cultural activity: the writing of Terence Blake, the art of John Young, the music of The Slugfuckers in Sydney and Frank Lovece’s D-Rays in Melbourne, the collages of Zerox Dreamflesh, Tony Thwaites’ article on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (inspired by Deleuze’s 1969 The Logic of Sense) which belatedly appeared in Frogger, my Art & Text piece on the artist Maria Kozic (issue 2, 1981), and more.
It was only a short moment of mainly positive appropriations of Deleuze – sometime between 1978 and 1981 – before the inevitable critiques of the philosophy of desire appeared on the scene, sounding a (by then) much-needed and well-deserved scepticism: Edward Colless & David Kelly, Jean Baudrillard’s Forget Foucault, much of Local Consumption magazine.7 In an overlapping circle of activity, intellectual-historian Ian Hunter was busy telling us that all poststructuralist shenanigans based on a primordial “release of being” were a load of trendy, neo-Heideggerian bunk. And, more in the mainstream, old-school feminist Beatrice Faust [1939-2019] let us know that she and her hard-left chums had “seen through” and already thoroughly critiqued this stuff the moment it had hit Australia’s shores sometime in the ‘60s or ‘70s – in which exact journals or seminar halls, it was never made clear. But it had happened! (I would later hear exactly the same thing, in turn, of Baudrillard: rough-as-guts musician Marie Hoy had, I was informed by Vikki Riley, conceptually “tore his work apart”, once and for all, in someone’s loungeroom. You had to be there!)
Although Deleuze and others (Michel Serres, Jean-François Lyotard) had catalysed, at the beginning of the decade, a crucial loosening-up of the hard-line Freudo-Marxist rhetoric of the 1970s, the unknowable logic of the rhizome – and the endless assertions of its marvellous reality – undoubtedly came to function as another kind of doxa for some. Meaghan Morris commented in 1985: “Misreading, appropriation, pillaging, etc., have become names of pure, autonomous values (Good Things, or Good Habits) posited independently of any strategy of opposition to a real opponent”.8 Only a very few individuals, such as Paul Patton, pressed on with an exploration and celebration of Deleuze into the mid-’80s and beyond.9 By 1985 and the seventh issue of On the Beach, several Sydney Super-8 filmmakers, well past the allure of any messily optimistic critical approach, were confident in announcing: “I doubt if anyone could be bothered mounting a critique of Deleuze, he’s so herbal”10 – a statement which makes hippies of almost all of us.
As a useful reference point – written in the language of the purest journalistic cliché – here is an account (in full), from a French literary context (the popular Magazine Littéraire), of what the figure of Desire Deleuze stood for “in its time”, and now what the newer Deleuze is supposed to stand for in “our” time.
Because of him, machines turned “desiring”, the unconscious became a space of “production”, and perversions gained legitimacy. The epoch helped: remember, it was the start of the ‘70s, just after the breaking of the liberatory wave of ‘68. It was the time of intellectual conversions. Gilles Deleuze was at the head of the movement. This tranquil philosopher, a brilliant historian of ideas who had returned Nietzsche to prominence and made Spinoza relevant to the present, suddenly changed his tone and broke into the psychoanalytic cathedral. Anti-Oedipus was a testament to this transformation. An ideology was born: the “ideology of desire”. Classical images of the body were reviewed, reworked. The idea of Man was shaken, agitated, liberated from the chains that centuries of idealist philosophy had imposed on it. The imaginary was unblocked. Life burned anew, ignited by jouissance. Existence finally had the allure of happiness. But alas! The ‘80s arrived, and desire fell into oblivion. But not Deleuze, fortunately, who returned to a more traditional form of work, choosing ... cinema. The Movement-Image speaks to us, in a classical language, of the problems of Space, Time, Movement. (Dominique Grisoni)11
Deleuze’s cinema project leaked into the Australian marginal intellectual scene in terms not exactly dissimilar to those made rather terrifying clear by Grisoni. Advance translations in On the Beach and Frogger honoured mainly the “hard” philosophical side of the project – the re-reading of philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) – at the total expense of the fond cinephiliac side (respectful homages to every film director from Cecil B. DeMille to Andrei Tarkovsky, via Samuel Fuller and Joseph Losey) with the kinds of cannily democratic cultural strategies for film criticism that suggested. On the contrary, this comfortably philosophical Deleuze did local duty mostly on only one branch of audiovisual production: video art, and its slightly older bedfellow of modernist/avant-garde film. Even the hopeful exegetes were offered a new crack at Deleuze – what with all those taxonomies and categorisations.
Notwithstanding the few rather less constrained, more inventive responses to/uses of Deleuze’s cinema project – Morris on Crocodile Dundee (1986), Blake on Pier Paolo Pasolini12 – it served essentially as a tool for the sedimentation and compartmentalisation of diverse knowledges, not their liberation or intermingling. In short, “a more traditional form of work” … and a benign betrayal of everything Desire Deleuze had meant, locally or anywhere else.
In truth, Deleuze’s work on the cinema is very strange. The first volume, in particular, aroused a lot of genuine initial excitement both in Australia and elsewhere – particularly in those looking for a way out of the unfortunate excesses of ‘70s academic film curricula. It was a book that seemed to promise, on every page, a renovation of film aesthetics, maybe even film theory. Everyone immediately put the book aside but kept it near, as if waiting for a seed to grow and finally reveal its mysterious flower. But, quite literally, the book led nowhere. It steadfastly resists being applied, in part or as a whole, to either films or cinema. Theoretically, the book’s taxonomic system falls apart quickly13; and analytically – as Marie-Claire Ropars has revealed (although it was hardly a secret to begin with)14 – there is hardly a single practical insight in it that is not cribbed from the most publicly available history of film criticism (mostly, but not exclusively, French).
That Deleuze commits this cribbing without the slightest sign of shame, and that he chooses to weave a synthetic account of the milestones of cinema form from what came to his hand, probably shouldn’t surprise us too much – it’s what a lot of celebrated modern writers, of fiction or non-fiction, do. Deleuze’s cinema project, then, turns out to be not only a bricolage, and a kind of fiction (a magnificent, if obviously empirically wrong, tale of the large-scale impulses driving cinema history), but also what I would have to call – you guessed it – an abstract machine, somewhat beyond itself and its ostensible, propositional content.15
So what is an abstract machine, or at least, what’s it for? A machine to think with, to stage thoughts, to experiment with suspended connections – of course, but that’s what every Deleuzean-style machine is for. An abstract machine reaches for something even more dizzying: it attempts to sketch the general shape of things (mobile and multi-dimensional as that shape must be), a prevalent form, a logic. Not a deep-structural, invariant logic, but another kind of logic, fantastic, at the very border of the thinkable: a hyper-logic. The Logic of Sense was already well on that trail in 1969, as was an expanded section of that book, the relatively little-cited but central 1967 essay, “How Do We Recognise Structuralism?”.16
It seems to me that Deleuze’s dream, renewed many times over, has been to map or conjure a diagram of what he feels to be the abstract shape of things – whether the shape of the social, of existence, of the relation between people and nature, of the forms of artistic creation. His writing with Guattari strains the descriptive function of language – the attempt to map, spatialise, stratify – to its absolute limit. This is what constitutes, I would venture, its very particular poetic character (Deleuze is, conversely, not especially a lyrical or rhapsodic writer). Terms borrowed from available knowledges – scientific, geographic, musical, etc. – proliferate wildly, introducing little binary games (productively think the difference between: point and line, flow and stasis, tree and rhizome, map and photo ... ) that could never be schematised into an overall conceptual chart.
It’s the same with the dozens of special, identifiably Deleuzean terms, like machine, assemblage, rhizome, line-of-flight, desire: who could ever precisely distinguish their meanings and functions within the text? For once, the term buzzword is not an insult: Deleuze’s terms only work for you if they have that buzzy quality, if you can bring to them that necessary (and often transient) element of hallucination.
Why was Deleuze drawn to the idea of writing about cinema? Beyond a clear personal fondness for the medium, perhaps it was more profoundly the case that the cinema called out to Deleuze as the abstract machine – super-diagram, mega-map – par excellence. That is why – to reprise the debate (sketched above) between the imaginary and time crystals – Deleuze has so little fundamental interest in a classic pole of almost every available film theory: namely, the spectator. He’s after something outside singular individuals, something embodied, objectified, a form, something than can be shared, regardless of the quirks of your or my individual imaginary.
Despite all the purist film theories down the decades (for which Deleuze’s project provides a wonderful antidote), the cinema image/sound is, at base, an incredibly impure mix of realism and artifice, documentary and diagram, theatrics and plastics, concrete and abstract. The cinema has the ability to fix the flux of things in a form, but a form that is nonetheless – and this is the ideal that Deleuze derives from Bergson – an open, moving totality. Deleuze no longer seems to be talking of desire in these books, but he is still pursuing, in another way, the shape of lines and movements and crack-ups, and the human politics of these things.
As in this remark on Mizoguchi (who “attained the lines of the universe, the fibres of the universe, and who constantly traced them in his films”): “Mizoguchi thus reaches an extreme limit of the action-image: when a world of misery undoes all the lines of the universe, allowing a reality to surge forth which is no longer anything but disoriented, disconnected”.17
Deleuze’s cinema project is profoundly continuous in other ways with his “ideology of desire” period (and, further back, with his earlier books). Some of these continuities remind us of what should be raised in any serious critique of Deleuze (which my present piece does not pretend to be). By refusing, at a deep level, all theories grounded in lack – psychoanalytic and otherwise – and stressing instead everything that is mobile, productive and virtual (rather than absent), Deleuze has made himself the most fundamentally optimistic philosopher imaginable. Beyond the Mizoguchi reference, there are in fact very few allusions to “a world of misery” in his writing – social history, with its hard, cold power-gender determinations, tends to be occulted as much as the bruised imaginary of the individual. “The cinema is always as perfect as it can be”: this rather beautiful phrase from the preface to The Movement-Image could stand as an emblem for Deleuze, who, one suspects, on an especially good day might say the same of the self, the world, the social, the relations between people and between nations ...
If it is true (as Dana Polan suggests) that Deleuze’s “politics is rooted in a faith”,18 it is because he says out loud – and, again, it is a necessary provocation – that, in cinema as anywhere else, everything is already in place, nothing is missing, everything is possible with a turn of the wheel, because there exist (as Guattari puts it) “cracks leading us, despite ourselves, to new social practices and to new aesthetic practices which will reveal themselves as less and less separate from each other, and more and more in complicity”.19
The important point is that there is still a politics at work in Deleuze’s writing of the ‘80s, and that one does him an awful disservice by treating the cinema books (and the subsequent book on Foucault) as “traditional” work in a “classical” language on “timeless” philosophical problems. Deleuze’s current politics does not, as it turns out, express itself in the form of the brash pop philosophy eagerly solicited in “Rhizome”. This is little wonder, since even Deleuze himself was troubled, a few years on, by the smugly self-styled, media-smart moves (as wielded by the so-called New Philosophers) parading only slogans and poses – the kind of rum poetics you hear today in Australia on specialist radio (and in Europe, TV) programs. But Deleuze’s dream for a pop philosophy meant neither a limited celebration of so-called populist culture, nor a simplified high philosophy watered down and pepped up for the masses.
Rather, it was a dream of everyone speaking in the languages available to them, on the subjects about which they were passionate, speaking in intensities, not only statements – and, above all, being heard, valued, respected. Perhaps it was the continued devaluing by society at large or people’s individual or collective intensities – and the continued gagging of their expression (as evidenced by the history of Australian public radio) – that spelt the inevitable demise of the hope for an emergent pop philosophy.
Thus, Deleuze’s politics in 1990 – the form it takes as writing – would be a response to conditions and times that are very different from those that marked the ‘70s; new times that seem to disallow, more strongly than ever, the dreaming-aloud of certain dreams.
“The ‘80s arrived, and desire fell into oblivion”. Did it, really? Grisoni’s statement is an appalling cliché, a true piece of fad-driven, weekend-supplement cultural doxa – the global consciousness zeitgeist is completely reinvented every decade! – but the very fact of its currency requires us to confront it. It may be just a projection of mine, but I can’t help wondering whether Deleuze, sizing up the new climate, fashioned his projects of the ‘80s precisely as a way of confronting just such a doxa. Maybe they were a way of finding new, different, necessarily displaced ways of mapping the lines of desire’s flight. And this without ever having to utter the word desire even once – a smart move in a culture of intellectual commodification and obsolescence.
Why imagine this strategy on Deleuze’s part? Because it was the man himself who issued this sublime and salutary warning to a “harsh critic”: “It’s a real pleasure to confound people ... But what do you know about me, given that I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth?” But more so because, peeping into the ‘90s, some of us need a dream of other things, “less public and more fun”20 – and Deleuze, as ever, is a good dreaming companion.
1. The English translations of these two volumes were published by University of Minnesota Press in, respectively, 1986 and 1989. Subsequently, the ongoing major project of publishing and translating the raw transcripts of Deleuze’s seminars (sometimes substantially different in tone and content to the eventual books written-up from them) have appeared, in several languages, both in print and online: see here for a listing of all the cinema seminars given between 1981 and 1985. back
2. I have here combined phrases from the first translation (by D.N. Rodowick) of this interview that I encountered – titled “On the ‘Crystalline Regime’” in Art & Text, no. 34 (Spring 1989), pp. 18-22 – and the later, better version, “Doubts About the Imaginary”, in Deleuze (trans. Martin Joughin), Negotiations 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 62-67. All subsequent quotations from Deleuze on time crystals come from this interview. back
3. Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 22; Guattari, “Cracks in the Street”, Flash Art, no. 135 (Summer 1987), p. 85. back
4. “Rhizome”, Ideology & Consciousness , no. 8 (Spring 1981), p. 50; in A Thousand Plateaus, p. 4. back
5. Paul Foss, “Entr’acte: A Slim Note”, Local Consumption, no. 2/3 (1982), p. 184. back
6. 2021: The industry of academic Deleuzean exegesis has alas, ground on with relentless productivity in the 31 years since writing this essay! back
7. See, for instance, Ted [Edward] Colless, “The Lost Wave: Semiotics, Desire, Cultural Vanguardism”, Local Consumption, no. 1 (August 1981), pp. 154-158. Reprinted as “The Lost Wave: Desire and the Avant-Garde” in Edward Colless, The Error of My Ways (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1995), pp. 105-108. back
8. Meaghan Morris, “Dated Local Essay”, On the Beach, no. 7/8 (Summer-Autumn 1985), p. 50. back
9. See, for example, Patton, “Conceptual Politics and the War-Machine in Mille Plateaux”, SubStance, no. 44/45 (1984), pp. 61-80. back
10. Ingrid Periz, Michael Hutak & Ben Crawford, “Theory in the Second Degree”, On the Beach, no. 7/8 (Summer-Autumn 1985), p. 35. back
11. Dominique-Antoine Grisoni, “Les Vingt ideologues d’aujourd’hui”, Magazine Littéraire no. 239/40 (March 1987), p. 99 (my translation). back
12. Meaghan Morris, “Tooth and Claw: Tales of Survival, and Crocodile Dundee”, The Pirate’s Fiancée (London: Verso, 1988), pp. 241-269, 284-287. Terence Blake, “Nothing to Declare: The Language of Becoming in Deleuze and Hillman”, Tension, no. 9 (May 1986), pp. 12-15; the author’s most updated version (July 2021) of this Pasolini section appears here. back
13. A jokey but brilliant critique of Deleuze’s periodised taxonomy can be found in Luc Moullet’s 2000 demolition (trans. Bill Routt), “The Green Garbage Bins of Gilles Deleuze”, Rouge, no. 6 (2005). back
14. Marie-Claire Ropars, “The Cinema, Reader of Gilles Deleuze”, Camera Obscura, no. 18 (September 1988), pp. 120-126. back
15. Eight years after writing this essay, I encountered the most eloquent and detailed exposition of my intuition here: Raymond Bellour (trans. Melissa MacMahon), “Thinking, Recounting: The Cinema of Gilles Deleuze”, Discourse, Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 1998), pp. 56-75. This special issue also contains Deleuze’s withering remarks from 1977 on the New Philosophers. back
16. Deleuze (trans. Michael Taormina), “How Do We Recognise Structuralism”, in Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974 (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), pp. 170-192, 305-308. back
17. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, pp. 194-195. back
18. Dana Polan, “Powers of Vision, Visions of Power”, Camera Obscura, no. 18 (September 1988), p. 115. back
19. Guattari, “Cracks in the Street”, p. 85. back
20. “Letter to a Harsh Critic” in Negotiations, pp. 9, 11. For many years, I knew this text in the translation published as “‘I Have Nothing to Admit’” in Semiotext(e), Vol. 2 No. 3 (1977); it was only much later, in encountering Joughin’s complete and finely annotated rendition, that I realised its complete context as a letter addressed to the young gay militant Michel Cressole (who died of AIDS-related illness in 1995, not long before Deleuze’s suicide), author of a book-length attack on the philosopher. back
3. Deleuze, Soft and Hard (Deleuze listserv posts, 1997)
From: Adrian Martin
Date: Fri, 17 Jan 1997 22:39:08 +0000
Subject: Deleuze, Soft & Hard
I have been lurking on this group for a while. There is a matter I would like to raise – it may come out a little intemperate and polemical, but I do mean it as an open question in search of a serious response.
More than ever these days, I detect a split between two different appropriations or uses of Deleuze’s (and/or Guattari’s) work. There is what I would (perhaps unwisely) call a hard, scholarly, exegetical appropriation – which seeks, in the traditional academic manner, to look into the texts and know what the author really said and meant and referred to, what context he worked in, what his specific politics and culture was, etc. It seems to me that, in this hard world, academics score points over each other by knowing the texts “better” than someone else, having the wiser insight, knowing the greater and truer context, etc.
And then there is the soft, creative appropriation of Deleuze, which seeks to extend him, to use him as a launching pad or inspiration. And of course I don’t just mean for acts of writing (scholarly or otherwise), but all kinds of artistic forms and expressions: poetry, dance, film, painting ... I probably don’t even need to say that the idea that one can (in this soft mode) actively seek to betray the word of Deleuze, or at the very least re-invent or re-conjure its spirit in this creative way, seems absolutely to chime with a philosophy that spoke of ideas as tool-boxes, of rhizomes and assemblages and lines of flight ...
But let’s not get too bogged-down in the sacred buzzwords, please! Here is why I am concerned about the soft/hard distinction (a little over-binary, I know, but hey, you gotta start somewhere ... ). Here in Australia, I first started hearing about and reading Deleuze & Guattari in the late 1970s – in a wild, low-budget, little book called Language, Sexuality & Subversion. I read about him in little, hand-made, collage-style punk magazines. And I can think of at least three post-punk bands in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s period (one of them was mine!) who sang crazy songs with lyrics and forms directly inspired by Deleuze & Guattari at their finest. (The same happened in the UK in those years.) I met painters and poets who were into Deleuze long before he was a darling of university reading lists – artists who put me onto the truly great and inspiring books of the Italian painter Gianfranco Baruchello, which seem to me supremely Deleuzean. I found in a grotty punk music shop the experimental album by Richard Pinhas called Rhizosphere including (if I recall correctly) “rough but beautiful vocals” by Gilles himself. And my own first written piece on Deleuze (in 1981) was a review of Godard’s film Sauve qui peut (la vie) ...
Now, please, nobody get me wrong on this. I’m not saying that every last Deleuzean scholar is a big exegetical bore, and that only wild-and-free artists have truly hooked themselves up to the proper “spirit”. I well know that many exegetes of Deleuze & Guattari – including philosophers of various stripes who have taken up this work (Alphonso Lingis, Paul Patton, Liz Grosz, Sylvère Lotringer whose Semiotext(e) publications were so inspiring and fruitful in that 1970s/’80s period) – have written with great passion and creativity. But, but, but ... you know, I think a change in the air came along around the mid-’80s, with the publication of Deleuze’s cinema books. It seems to me a whole academic industry seized on those books (in various fields: philosophy, cinema studies, etc.) in order to produce a very straight, orderly Deleuze capable of generating the usual respectful commentaries or exercises in academic one-upmanship (eg., the tiresome “is Deleuze really a closet/unconscious misogynist?” articles that pounce upon some loaded, florid metaphor or other in the vast sea of his prose).
I suspect there was something in those cinema books – books that I love, by the way, and that have been incredibly important to me – something in their taxonomic tone that, unfortunately seemed to invite this hardest of hard appropriations. And – horror of horrors – this whole academic industry led some people to pulp the entirety of Deleuze into little morsels of content (those buzzwords at work again) that could be easily identified and classified: I remember an awful Conference paper in Melbourne where some cinema-history-teaching dude from Victorian College of the Arts went through a range of popular movies (such as the Mad Max films), categorising deterritorialised heroes on their motor-bike as exemplifying lines of flight, and horror movie mutants as bodies without organs, and on and on – shockingly literal appropriations, absolutely anti-Deleuzean in spirit.
And I guess, by the by, my animating gripe is also this: in the rise of so much commentary on, and events around, Deleuze & Guattari, there seems to be so little space made for, so little real recognition of, what I’m calling the soft appropriations (which are prodigious). Like at the 1996 Deleuze conference in Perth (just to give a random example): artists of any sort – not to mention freelance crazies like myself unaffiliated with any university (I am a film critic by trade) – are just never invited to these events to bear witness to what Deleuze & Guattari’s writings have meant to them, and what they have inspired ... The universities just stay closed in on themselves, as ever (at least in some countries and cultures).
Enough of my bad mood (“When I am no longer capable of loving and admiring people and things (not very many), I’ll feel dead, mortified” – hey, Deleuze said that one). Are there any thoughts out there on my idea about the “two Deleuzes”?
According to the (doubtless incomplete) transcript printed-out in my archive, this post prompted around 16 detailed responses, long or short, in the space of 4 days. Among them was the Australian art critic/curator Stephen O’Connell (now Zagala), who delightfully reminisced about the talk printed at the top of this assemblage: “I remember quite clearly sitting in an airy gallery space in Melbourne one Saturday afternoon in the winter of 1989. The weather was grey and gloomy outside but I sat listening to an animated film critic/theorist who inspired me with his enthusiasm for Deleuze. It was you, Adrian … As an art-writer myself, I became fascinated by these two French philosophers who seemed to fill you with an infectious joy and ‘crazy’ energy. It was a pivotal event for me, which launched me on my own apprenticeship with Deleuze and Guattari’s writings”. Before bidding adieu to the listserv group, on 21 January 1997 I posted a follow-up comment.
Firstly, many thanks to all those who have responded on- and off-list to my heartfelt post, “Deleuze, Soft & Hard”. I will jump in again here.
I will get the niggly, defensive gripes off my chest first. (Deleuzean Disclaimer: defensiveness is well known as a sorry deterritorialisation and stratification of flows and intensities, etc.). When I initially posted, I guessed I would be getting two particular critiques: 1. That Deleuze is not two but multiple, a rhizome, a pack ... 2. More pointedly, that a binary distinction between hard and soft is very un-Deleuzean, because there’s hard in soft, soft in hard, space between a hard rock and a soft place, a baroque folding of hard into soft, and so on and so forth. In other words, it’s a very bad, very constrictive, very “metaphysical” distinction. A Bad Binary. I duly received both critiques, by the shovel-full.
Seen in the light of an “abstract machine” logic, I agree with that critique. (But please, please, please, let’s not descend into that droll, snappy, one-liner, epistemological point-scoring that stops intellectual discussion dead these days – particularly, I’d have to say, on egghead sites of the Internet.) And points made by others did happily shake my polemical certainty about making a stand on hard vs. soft. Yes, I can see it’s true from my own experience that most of us work that space between hard and soft uses/appropriations of Deleuze. I gather that, in the universities, Deleuze has not yet completely hardened – because it would be impossible to freeze him (and/or Guattari), and because his work still inspires creative thought in many little pockets – and I fully concede that some of the artistic uses of Deleuze can be way too soft and sometimes downright silly. (Once again, it’s the buzzword problem: when it just gets down to slogans on the order of life is a rhizome, everything flows, the world is fragmented, we are all multiple, or take a schizo stroll, freak out and be a body without organs! Although I’m not entirely down on sloganeering and buzzwords as parts of a merry “pop philosophy” ... see below).
But, you know, I wasn’t really trying to make a metaphysic out of soft and hard, I wasn’t trying to posit them as conceptual absolutes. I think – to be aggressive for a moment – that many of us who love Deleuze tend to get a little metaphysical (i.e., airy-fairy) when confronted with any kind of political problem or complaint or doubt by waxing: “Hey man, every event has its own multiplicity, its own potentiality, its straight bits and its squiggly bits, it can go any way, revolutionary or fascist, we’ll just have to wait and watch those beautiful lines of flight in motion ...” It reminds me, amusingly, of a tic in cinema studies from a few years back – when everyone would gesture toward the need to grasp “the specificity of specific conjunctions”, without ever being able to say what or where this specificity actually was!
And I guess – hard self-thought here – that I was making a political point about the actual (not the ideal/potential) uses of Deleuze & Guattari in the world as I see and brush against it. I was saying, in a nutshell, that a lot of the commentary around Deleuze just does not open itself up to, acknowledge, work with, extend the more poetic/creative/artistic uses of his work all over the board that have been going on for only about 25 to 30 years! I think Deleuze & Guattari (as well as Lyotard and Serres) were/are open, all or most of the time, to this kind of mutual embrace, this inter-generative play and work between art and text.
I don’t mean to suggest – let me make this clear again – that art is good while writing is bad, soft poetry or music is good while hard thinking is bad, blablabla. Reading Guillaume Ollendorff’s wonderful response, and Stephen O’Connell’s too (thanks for the memory, Stephen, and also for the clarification about softies present at the Perth event), it really clicked with me why I get upset about these issues. In short: what saddens me is when the intensity goes out of the use/discussion of Deleuze & Guattari, what Stephen referred to as the necessity of an engagement with this stuff. Musical Deleuzeans, I suspect, get this intensity business better or faster than anyone: the properties of energy and flow that have to (for me) animate the necessary engagement. When the intensity goes out of the commentary on Deleuze, I turn off – it’s dead, and it makes me feel dead.
I probably mentioned punk culture and punk music a few too many times in my original post (certainly for some). But intensity doesn’t just travel through punk music, or thrash-metal music, or those newer, aggressive kinds of experimental-techno music that Guillaume was rightly celebrating. Deleuze was on the ball to list Patti Smith among his exemplary figures – because she (performing in my home town of Melbourne this week!) works all the available intensities, from the quietest and most melancholic to the loudest and angriest And the most inspired written stuff on Deleuze & Guattari works these intensities too. (I’m glad Greg Seigworth mentioned Meaghan Morris’ marvellous “Crazy Talk is Not Enough: Deleuze and Guattari at Muriel’s Wedding” essay in that obscure geography journal with the entirely surreal title of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space [later reprinted in her 2006 book Identity Anecdotes] – for me, it really embodies and narrates the space of experience of someone who, quite literally in Meaghan’s case, attended Deleuze’s Parisian seminars in the 1970s, had a fair bit to do with proselytising for it in far flung antipodes, and ultimately arrived at a profound grasp and appreciation of its uses and functions for her.)
But – and it seems naughty to say this on the Net, which surely constitutes the Revenge of Rampant Logocentrism In Our Time – intensity doesn’t always go through words, goddamit, and this is another thing that annoys me in the non-art-appreciative milieu of Deleuze studies. For me, this is what the idea of Pop Philosophy promised: that feelings and concepts, intensities and thoughts would emerge and shape themselves through all channels, interlinked: dance and writing and film and ... and that is a realm where sloganeering and buzzwords, in other words the softest of soft appropriations, can have (if we’re lucky and they work) their charge and efficacy and fun. For me, this is the Deleuzean side still to be mined in pop culture, so-called – and, in the academy-certified Deleuze, it still seems to me that Kafka is more the art du jour than Krazy Kat or whatever. (Many, many commentaries on Deleuze’s cinema books are relentlessly high-art-film oriented: Bresson, Tarkovsky, Godard, etc.) It fascinates me how Deleuze himself was compelled to distance himself from the pop philosophy dream, when he saw the first signs of the mass media’s sound-byte culture, and later the Reality TV analysed so acutely by the late super-Deleuzean film critic Serge Daney. (Myself, I have a softness for Reality TV in some of its manifestations ... ). But that pop philosophy dream still beckons.
Something else amidst all this. I lived my own Deleuzean drama in Melbourne around the rise and fall of the public/community radio station called 3RRR. Some on this list will have read the 1970s and ‘80s Semiotext(e) material on Italy’s Radio Alice, which found very direct inspiration in Deleuze & Guattari’s work. 3RRR wasn’t exactly as incendiary as Radio Alice politically, but it was a wild, punk place in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: a place where anyone could rave on air, at any length, in any mode, play any music, whatever. (I ran a few shows there myself, also under the Deleuzo-Guattarian influence!) That’s where – even in a medium of words – I learnt the difference that Guillaume evoked between strict sense and intensities. Between engagement, an openness to the new, and – here’s the drama bit – what the radio station then sadly became: streamlined, professionalised, with all kinds of buffers put between the true ravers and their audiences, with all kinds of explanatory, framing protocols to ensure sense, and sensibility, in programming ... Ever since then, I immediately tense up whenever I hear a trained “media voice” on radio or TV: the tone, the shape of the phrasing, the mellifluous sound, always overwhelms the merest possibility of any explosive sense escaping …
The most inspiring, intense, passionate, intelligent essays I have ever read about Deleuze & Guattari are by an Australian guy who sang in a band, hocked his books so he could fly to Paris for Deleuze’s live seminars, and now still lives in France. Terence Blake, are you out there reading this? I just re-looked over his 1986 piece “Nothing to Declare: The Language of Becoming” in Tension no. 9, and in it I found this: ‘Bodies without organs, becomings, intensities – I have talked to people practising yoga, meditation, kung fu, analysis, music, painting, eurhythmy, who have understood these ideas far better than those who write on Deleuze without ever leaving the closed circle of a regurgitated jargon. The beauty of Deleuze’s ideas is that they are constructed so that you must take them over, make them your own, ‘falsify’ them in that they become something else in being related to other experiences”.
Will I now apologise, as so many seem compelled to do on the Net, for the length of this posting? No. (There appears to be a lot of Catholic guilt – or false modesty – out there in cyberspace.)
Lastly: somebody asked where I got, why I picked, the terms soft and hard. That one’s easy, and the answer connects me to all the passionate Godardians from Portugal and Japan who have recently written in. I was remembering the beautiful chamber-video Soft and Hard (1985) by Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, with the secondary title A Soft Conversation on Hard Subjects. In that tape, the relation between soft and hard is indeed very complex, multiple and variable; it stands for woman vs. man and private vs. public and video vs. cinema, but it also marks (and the tape enacts) all the leaks and crossovers and reversals between these rum metaphysical conceptions. The whole Godard/Gorin/Miéville/Deleuze/Guattari nexus goes back a long way, through many milestones: Tout va bien (1972), Deleuze on the Godard/Miéville TV series of the mid ‘70s, the movement/time cinema books ... and the refraction through Serge Daney (who appears fleetingly in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma series – Deleuze prefaced his Ciné-journal book of 1986). Just one example of a living philosophical practice ...
© Adrian Martin 24 June 1989 / June 1990 / January 1997